Pistols used in Burr-Hamilton duel


July 11, 2008, 02:37 PM
Supposedly the pistols used in the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel had a "hidden" hair trigger. What exactly does this mean? Is anyone familiar with these pistols?

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July 11, 2008, 02:42 PM
I suggest you post this on the black powder forum. Someone there is sure to know. ;)

Nevermind. I'll post it there. Check there for answers.

July 11, 2008, 05:28 PM
I have a book that discussed it. I will try to look it up for you later. The pistols purpotedly had a very heavy trigger pull thus if one made their a hair trigger they would have a marked advantage. Hamilton specificaly told his second not to set the hair trigger.

July 11, 2008, 05:32 PM
This doesn't exactly answer your question...but for a very funny take on the Burr Hamilton duel I recommend checking out the website Funny or Die.com.

They have a piece called moments in drunk history...where some very drunk guy relates the facts surrounding the duel. Meanwhile, the duel is "re-enacted".


*** adult language and poor personal behavior displayed in the video.

July 11, 2008, 06:20 PM
Heh. If I recall correctly, one pistol had a hair trigger AND a rifled barrel.

At the time dueling pistols were VERY innaccurate and supposed to be. The purpose wasn't to kill, but to back up ones stance or honor by risking life and limb to make a point. The chance of being hit was fairly small.

July 11, 2008, 06:41 PM
It is a set trigger, just like you see on lots of European rifles, although it was not in the trigger guard. The theory goes that Hamilton did not have the set triggers 'set' by his second, and that Aaron Burr had to squeeze the regular trigger so hard to make the pistol fire that he accidently killed Hamilton.

July 11, 2008, 06:48 PM
^^^ There is fairly solid evidence that Hamilton did not intend to shoot Burr, supported by statements he made before the duel. Apparently shooting with intent to miss was considered an honorable way for both parties to effectively back out of the duel.

There is also plenty of speculation that Burr was alarmed by the shot and fired inadvertently.

I remember seeing the monument in Weehawken when I was little. The history intrigued me. I've since heard the monument's been vandalized numerous times and is no longer there.

July 11, 2008, 07:10 PM
"...dueling pistols were VERY innaccurate..." Um, no. Most later sets had rifled barrels, set triggers and relatively decent sights. Not considered 'good form' though.
Last I saw(there was an article in one of the gun rags long ago), the Burr/Hamilton pistols were in a vault in the head office of the Chase Manhattan Bank.
A 'Hidden Hair Trigger' is set trigger that has an activation device(a button or whatever) that can't readily be seen. Reduces the trigger pull significantly. They were done away with because duelists tended to shoot themselves in the foot, shoot the Seconds or spectators or other premature discharges.

July 11, 2008, 07:15 PM
At first rifled barrels and sights were considered unsporting, as was careful aiming and practicing beforehand. One duelist opined that when a duelist took the time to aim carefully, even a poor shot had a one in five chance of hitting his target. One duelist complained after an encounter that his opponent "took full aim at him." The pistols used in the Burr/Hamilton duel had had secret hair triggers (and hidden rifling). Hair triggers enjoyed some popularity but premature discharges and accidents involving wounded seconds and spectators made them fall into disrepute. One Abraham Bosquet describes an incident where a duelist shot himself in the foot while awaiting a duel to commence due to a pistol with a hair trigger. Though rifling was considered bad form, Lord Cardigan used a rifled pistol in his 1840 duel and was censured for it. Various strategies were employed to prevent injuring including standing sideways to make a slimmer target, though Charles James Fox replied, "Why man, I'm as thick one way as the other!" when his second suggested it in his duel in Hyde Park in 1779. Fox was injured in the duel.


You might be right!

July 11, 2008, 07:17 PM
Here's a good account of the duel.


July 12, 2008, 12:24 AM
The pistols used in the Burr-Hamilton duel not only possessed a hidden hair trigger, but several other features that made them less than sporting for the time period. They had weighted bronze fore ends, adjustable front and rear sights, and a 54 caliber bore when the accepted limit for dueling was 50 caliber. The pistols used actually belonged to Hamilton's brother in law, Frank Church (who was experienced dueler) and Hamilton borrowed them even though he owned his own set of pistols. Makes you wonder why? An earlier duel using these pistols were used by Church and Burr where Burr missed and Church succeeded in shooting the heavy brass button off Burrs coat, but otherwise Burr went unharmed. The pistols were also used by Hamilton's son Philip in a duel resulting in Philip's death. I have an article by Merrill Lyndsay who participated in the disassembly of the pistols in the 1970's to create reproductions with the Smithsonian... it was only then that the existence of the hair triggers was learned by the general public. I can scan the article and make it available next week.

July 12, 2008, 01:23 AM
Burr or Hamilton did one of them have an unfair advantage?

July 12, 2008, 02:42 AM
It looks like I'm going to have to intervene here :-)

Having owned and shot three original British flint duellers, and studied the whole class of guns extensively, I will claim to be an RKI on the subject.

The use of a single-set trigger was standard on pistols of this vintage. That being said, a set trigger is difficult to manage if you are unfamiliar with them. It is VERY easy to have an accidental discharge. But "secret"? No. Not to anyone who knew anything about duelling pistols.

As to accuracy, I will cheerfully assure you that a good flint smoothbore dueller in good shape will put 13 shots into a 6-inch group at 25 meters with the right load. Whether or not YOU can do that is another matter. Flintlock pistols are unforgiving on a good day.

The caliber? .55 caliber tended to be the standard for British duellers. I've seen them bigger, though I consider the .69 caliber guns to be officer's pistols, not true duellers. Anything under .50 is highly prized by MLAIC shooters today, as they tend to be more accurate.

Rifled guns were forbidden under the British Code of Duel. The Manton brothers would both make you guns with scratch rifling (very shallow) or rifled at the breech and smooth at the muzzle. Cheating, but very hard to catch. And the French and Germans considered rifled pistols perfectly suitable for duelling. Particularly in percussion - but I have to concede that the French were fond of duelling at 50 or 75 meters with these. After all, it's hard to enjoy the fawning mademoiselles when you are in the hospital with a bullet wound.

Short form: No cheating.

Oleg Volk
July 12, 2008, 03:29 AM
This is a reproduction of the pistols used in that duel.


Very usable for cheating.



July 12, 2008, 09:23 AM
Hamilton was a boob.

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